Most of my friends know that I have a tracking spreadsheet and diary that covers many areas of my life from happiness to body and brain performance for the last 10+ years, but no one really knows what’s in it. Which is probably a good thing. And since the Triathlete magazine re-published their entertaining article about my quirky habits, I’ve received several emails EACH DAY from strangers asking for “your tracking template”. That’s all nice and good. But given the – what seemed to me – very high interest in this geeky topic, and strangers’ time spent emailing me (and my time responding to most of them), I thought to share my thoughts about tracking and how to make it effective.
First, similar to the benefits of learning an underlying phenomena vs. memorizing formulas in physics, I think it is much more impactful to think and understand the purpose and benefits of tracking, rather than pick up a (spreadsheet) template from someone else or another company in business setting. In fact, if you were to take my spreadsheet, you’d track completely useless things, such as number of pushups each morning (see below).
STEP #1: Purpose and benefits of tracking? Why?
I have no idea why you might need tracking, but here’s why I do it and why I think it can be applied to many areas, from corporate performance to your own life:
1) Tracking, especially manual rather than automated, brings attention to an important issue
- As an example, I track and write down the number of hours I slept each night, because I suck at getting enough sleep, but I’ve learned – the hard way – that sleeping is the single most important performance factor for me athletically and at the office in the form of creativity, short term memory and attention span.
- Another thing I conveniently avoid is doing functional strength and core exercises, but I know from experience that I won’t be able to stand up and run relaxed after a long triathlon “time trial” race bike ride unless my lower back and some other core muscles have been trained well before a long race. So: I write down the minutes of “core exercise” every morning.
- And last year my co-workers challenged me to a push up competition and despite my bulky build, I didn’t have the endurance to do more than 35 pushups in a row. After less than two months of tracking pushup reps every day (and consequently doing it 6 days a week), I easily did 100 non-stop.
- If your goal is to drop weight e.g. for a race, weighing yourself every morning and writing it down will already make a big impact in getting to your goal (search for academic studies on this if you don’t believe me)
- Ask yourself: what is it that I know I, my team or my company should be doing, but I/we don’t. Start tracking it every day and you’ll have a new level of focus tomorrow!
2) Tracking and diary can help find patterns and cause–effect relationships
- This is probably the stuff the quantified self movement talks most about. Someone found that if he stood minutes on one leg, he slept better the following night. This correlation and cause-effect relationship was found with simple tracking and analysis (although it probably does not stand scientific scrutiny).
- As an example, I simply write down the minutes of each exercise each day and a qualitative description of my workout. That has helped me discover why I got injured: I ran too many days in a row (easy to forget unless you have a record of it), my bike seat was too high and destroyed my lower back the day after a ride. Or, I can go back a year or two and study the pattern leading into Ironman Hawaii triathlon or my best race, and simply copy the 7 days preparation leading into my next race.
- Ask yourself: Assuming a successful / unsuccessful event (whether at work or something else), what success ingredients would you like to study afterwards to better understand the ingredients of success.
3) Tracking and historical data is the proof and takes emotions and politics out
- Is your business unit growing, shrinking, catching up a competitor? Are you truly getting fitter or just “feeling” better or worse? Data brings objectivity and democracy into decision making (how often does the highest paid person’s opinion win in a corporate debate?) and performance evaluations.
- For example, I have separate section in my spreadsheet where I write down my Heart Rate, Power/speed/time and Perceived Effort for certain standardized workouts, every 1-2 weeks. I don’t have to guess whether I’m fitter or not, data tells me. That could be 20min all out effort on a bike trainer, 15minutes of running at 6min/mile on a treadmill or 5x200yds in a pool with average best time.
- Ask yourself: What are true markers of success in what you’re trying to achieve and track it in a standardized way on a regular basis.
4) Tracking hacks for personal wellness and happiness
- I happen to be a happiness-seeking person. (some argue there are 6.97Billion of us on the planet with that disorder). Turns out happiness is a choice and there’s research that says writing three things you’re grateful for and excited about each day, rewires your brain to be happy. Well, I do just that on my spreadsheet.
- Last and maybe least, a little diary detailing your life adventures is a convenient way to remember what happened, say, on August 20th in 2010 in your life. (I got married).
The reason for all the things I track – from caffeine intake to daily mood to resting heart rate to heart rate variability to running KMs to “feeling 1 to 5” – fall into one or more of those above four categories. If you ask yourself the questions I listed above, you should be able to come up with a list of things that might be worth tracking.
STEP #2: How to track to make it all work at minimum cost with maximum impact?
If you have listed all the things you want to track, you might want to consider a few things that actually make you successful in tracking:
- Make your tracking “platform” accessible from anywhere, anytime. For personal use, I use a Google Spreadsheet that I can access anywhere with GSM or CDMA cellular data coverage even if there’s no WiFi.
- Avoid platforms that easily disappear or are tough to port to the new new thing. In other words, paper diary is not very convenient when you want to do it all through Google Glasses and voice recognition in 2014.
- Use a platform and template that easily allows you to manipulate and analyze your data afterwards, whether to look for correlations or change units, formats or add new data fields. I’ve found a simple spreadsheet with rows as dates and columns as data fields to be best for this reason.
- Create a habit to track your data every day. For me this is 30-45seconds immediately after waking up every morning and another 30-60seconds every evening as part of my wind down routine.
- There’s a big difference between measuring “Outcome Goals” and “Success Ingredients”. In general, the latter is much more actionable and more useful for tracking. For example, your or your company losing a competition is an outcome, but increasing your running mileage or increasing customer retention might be a much more actionable Success Ingredient that you can affect on a daily basis.
- Lastly - and very importantly - structure your tracking habits and template so that you can be as actionable as possible with minimum effort and (time) cost. For example, avoid tracking things that you obviously will not use for any actionable future benefit, avoid checking or tracking your data more frequently than needed (e.g. a CEO is unlikely to make new actionable decisions every hour based on the same data stream, while a consumer Internet user acquisition hacker might need to track data every 30 seconds. At home, tracking your resting HR or weight 6 times a day isn’t going to help you make any actionable decisions about it.) For me personally, I track things on a daily basis and mostly make bigger decisions about my habits (or athletic training) on a weekly or monthly basis based on the data.
- (potentially) Automate some tracking and reporting or alerting; although, this may not help you bring attention to what you’re tracking.
I hope that helps you to build your own tracking template that works for you. If requested, I’m of course happy to share my template, but you may just end up doing hundreds of pushups each day, when you should be sprinting on a track, learning to speed read or increase your revenue per visit!